Barbarian wisdom: Celsus and Origen of Alexandria (second-third centuries CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Barbarian wisdom: Celsus and Origen of Alexandria (second-third centuries CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 15, 2024,

Ancient authors: Celsus and Origen of Alexandria, Against Celsus 1.1-4; 1.12; 1.14-24; 1.58-60; 3.5-8 (link).

Comments: Celsus, who aligned himself with Stoic- and Platonic-leaning pursuers of wisdom, wrote an extensive rhetorical attack on the validity of the movements devoted to Jesus (writing some time in the decades after 130 CE). Celsus did so by drawing on the notion of an original “true doctrine” that could be pieced together by an intelligent Greek from the wisdom of a variety of peoples usually labelled “barbarians.” Based on Origen’s response, it seems that the first part of Celsus’ attack was aimed at ensuring that followers of Jesus could not claim to hold the “true doctrine” via their connection to the very ancient teachings of the Judeans (Jews). (Judean and Christian writers, including Origen, would attempt that very thing). Passages suspected to be citations of Celsus himself are in italics in the translation below.

Origen only wrote his refutation of Celsus almost a century later (ca. 248 CE). Many of the selections presented here involve Origen attempting to show that it is not valid to exclude Judeans (and, therefore, those who followed the Judean messiah, Jesus) from the class of the “wise barbarians” while including those such as Egyptians, Persians, Chaldeans, Odrysians (Thracians), and others. Throughout the first book, Origen works with two primary frameworks for understanding groups devoted to Jesus. (1) On the one hand, he regularly places them alongside Greek philosophers in order to show that Jesus adherents are in fact superior to those philosophers with respect to understanding the truth.  (2) On the other hand, and most relevant to ethnic relations, he consistently places Judeans and groups devoted to Jesus among and at the pinnacle of the “wise barbarians” that Celsus would have to admit are in some significant ways the source of the “true doctrine.” So the issue of whether or not Judeans and, by relation, Christians should be considered “wise barbarians” is the crux of the issue on both sides of the argument.

Throughout Origen’s response we see a Greek from Alexandria who is very much familiar with ethnographic discourses concerning not only Judeans, but also Scythians, Egyptians, Chaldeans (and Magians), and others. In fact, one selection below is devoted to refuting the somewhat common Greek and Roman ethnographic claim (held by Celsus) that Judeans were in fact merely problematic Egyptians and not really a legitimate people on their own (see also Tacitus and Josephos’ Against Apion on this site).

For further insights into the ethnic hiearchies that underly Origen’s approach, go to this link.


Book 1

[Origen uses Scythians as an example of an uncivilized people]

1  The first point which Celsus brings forward in his attempt to attack Christianity is that the Christians entered into secret associations with each other contrary to law. He says that there are some associations that are in the open and that these are in accordance with the laws while others are secret and maintained in violation of the laws. He wants to bring into disrepute what are called the love-feasts of the Christians, as if they had their origin in the common danger and were more binding than any oaths. Since, then, he rambles on about the common law, alleging that the associations of the Christians are in violation of it, I have to make this reply:

Suppose someone settled among Scythians, whose laws are unholy, and that he had no opportunity to leave and was forced to live among them. For the sake of the true law, such a person would enter into associations with like-minded individuals even though it was contrary to Scythian law, which would be unlawful to the Scythians. So, if truth is to decide, the laws of the peoples which relate to images and a godless multiplicity of gods are Scythian laws, or even more impious than these, if that is possible. Therefore, it is not wrong to form associations in opposition to existing laws if this is done for the sake of the truth. For just as it would be right for people to enter into a secret association in order to put to death a tyrant who had taken away the city’s freedom, so too it is right when Christians, who are tyrannized by the one who is called the devil and by falsehood, form associations against the devil and contrary to his laws for the sake of the salvation of others whom they may succeed in persuading to revolt against a law which is, so to speak, Scythian and tyrannical.

[Origen attempts to refute Celsus’ argument that, although Judeans are barbarians, they are not among the wise barbarians who preserved the true doctrine]

2   Next Celsus says that the doctrine (dogma) – clearly meaning the Judean way of life (Ioudaismos) on which the Christian way of life (Christianismos) depends – was barbarian in its origin. Reasonably, he does not reproach it because of its origin among barbarians, but gives barbarians credit for their ability to discover doctrines. To this, however, he adds the statement that the Greeks are more skilful than any others in judging, establishing, and putting into practice the discoveries of barbarous peoples (ethnē).

Now this is our answer to Celsus’ allegations and our defence of the truths contained in Christianity: if anyone was to come from the study of Greek doctrines and usages to the teaching (logos) [i.e. of Christians], he would not only see that the doctrines of the teaching were true but would by practice establish their truth and supply whatever seemed missing in the demonstration, from a Greek point of view, and therefore confirm the truth of Christianity. Moreover, we have to say that the teaching has a distinctive demonstration that is more godly than any established by Greek dialectical arguments. The apostle calls this more godly method “the manifestation of the Spirit and of power” [1 Cor. 2:4]: of the Spirit on account of the prophecies, which are sufficient to produce faith in any one who reads them, especially in those things which relate to Christ; and, of power, because of the signs and wonders which we must believe to have been performed, both on many other grounds and on the fact that traces of them are still preserved among those who regulate their lives by the precepts of the teaching.

3  After this, Celsus goes on to say that the Christians practice and teach in secret and that, with good reason, they do this to escape the penalty of death which is imminent. He compares the dangers with those which were encountered for the sake of philosophy by such men as Socrates, and here he might have mentioned Pythagoras and other philosophers as well. But my answer is that in the case of Socrates the Athenians had regret immediately afterwards. No feeling of bitterness remained in their minds regarding him, as also happened in the experience of Pythagoras. The followers of the latter, indeed, for a considerable time established their schools in that part of Italy called Magna Graecia. However, in the case of the Christians, the Roman senate, contemporary emperors, the army, the people, and the relatives of those who believed made war upon their teaching and would have stopped it. It would have been overcome by a combined force of so many unless, by the help of God, it escaped the danger and rose above it in order to defeat the whole world that was conspiring against it.

4  Let us notice also how he thinks he can attack our moral teaching, claiming that it is merely commonly shared with other philosophers and nothing impressive or new. . . [material omitted].

12  In the next place, Celsus says these very words: If they would answer me, not as if I were asking for information, for I am acquainted with all their opinions, but because I take an equal interest in them all, it would be well. And if they will not, but will keep reiterating, as they generally do, ‘Do not investigate,’ etc., they must, he continues, at least explain to me the nature of these things about which they speak, and from where they are derived, etc. Now, with regard to his statement that he is acquainted with all our doctrines, we have to say that this is a boastful and daring assertion. For if he had read the prophets in particular, which are full of acknowledged difficulties and of declarations that are obscure to the multitude and if he had perused the parables of the gospels and the other writings of the law and of Judean history, as well as the utterances of the apostles, and had read them honestly with a desire to enter into their meaning, he would not have expressed himself with such boldness, nor said that he was acquainted with all their doctrines. Even we ourselves, who have devoted much study to these writings, would not say that we were acquainted with everything, for we have a regard for truth. Not one of us will assert that I know all the doctrines of Epicurus, or will be confident that he knows all those of Plato, particularly in the knowledge of the fact that so many differences of opinion exist among the expositors of these systems. For who is so daring as to say that he knows all the opinions of the Stoics or of the Peripatetics? Unless, of course, it is the case that he has heard this boast that “I know them all” from some ignorant and senseless individuals, who do not perceive their own ignorance and should therefore imagine, from having had such persons as his teachers, that he was acquainted with them all.

It seems to me that such a person is like someone who had visited Egypt. There the Egyptian sages (sophoi) who are well-versed in the ancestral writings devote themselves to philosophizing about what are to them the customary ways of honouring the gods. Yet, if the common people (idiōtai), after hearing certain myths whose accounts they do not understand, presume their supposed knowledge. Who should imagine that he is acquainted with the entirety of Egyptian knowledge after having been a student of the ignorant only and without having associated with any of the priests or without having learned the secrets of the Egyptians from any other source. What I have said regarding the sages and the common people among the Egyptians, I might have said also of the Persians. Among the Persians there are initiations conducted on rational principles by the wise among them, but understood symbolically by the more superficial people. The same remark applies to the Syrians, Indians, and to whoever else has myths and writings. . . [omitted material].

14  Celsus holds the opinion that there is an affinity among many peoples (ethnē) with respect to the same doctrine and enumerates all the peoples which held this doctrine originally. But for some reason he misrepresents the Judeans only. He does not include them among the other peoples as having either laboured along with them and arrived at the same conclusions or as having entertained similar opinions on many subjects. So it is appropriate to ask him why he believed the barbarian and Greek written inquiries regarding the antiquity of those peoples he lists, but exposes as false the written inquiries of this people alone. For if the respective writers related the events which are found in these works in the spirit of truth, why should we distrust the prophets of the Judeans alone? And if Moses and the prophets have recorded many things in their account from a desire to favour their own system, why should we not say the same thing about authors among other peoples?

Or, when the Egyptians or their authors speak negatively about the Judeans, are they to be believed on that point? Yet the Judeans, when saying the same things about the Egyptians – stating that they had suffered great injustice at Egyptian hands and that on this account they had been punished by God – are to be acccused of falsehood? And this applies not to the Egyptians alone, but to others, because we will find that there was a connection between the Assyrians and the Judeans, and that this is recorded in the ancient accounts of the Assyrians. Likewise, Judean authors (I avoid calling them “prophets,” so that I do not appear to prejudge the case) have related that the Assyrians were enemies of the Judeans. Take notice then of the arbitrary procedure of this person who believes the ancient accounts of these peoples on the ground of their being wise, and yet condemns others as being wholly ignorant. For listen to the statement of Celsus, who says: There is an ancient account about which there is a constant agreement among all the most wise peoples, cities, and men. Still, he will not call the Judeans a “wise people” in the same way in which he does the Egyptians, Assyrians, Indians, Persians, Odrysians [a sub-group of “Thracians”], Samothracians, and Eleusinians.

15  How much more impartial than Celsus is Numenius the Pythagorean, a very eloquent man who has carefully tested many opinions and collected together from many sources things that appear true. For, in the first book of his writing On the Good, speaking of those peoples who have adopted the opinion that God is incorporeal, he enumerates the Judeans also among those who hold this view. Numenius does not show any reluctance in even using the language of their prophets in his writing, and to give it a metaphorical signification. Moreover, it is said that Hermippos has recorded in his first book, On Lawgivers, that Pythagoras derived the philosophy which he introduced among the Greeks from the Judeans. There is also an extant book on Judeans by the author Hekataios, in which the wisdom of that people is emphasized even more, so much so that Herennius Philo [ i.e. Philo of Byblos], in his writing on Judeans, first of all has doubts whether it is really the composition of that author and secondly says that, if it really is by Hekataios, it is likely that he was carried away by the persuasive nature of the Judean account and so accepted it.

16  I must express my surprise that Celsus should categorize the Odrysians, Samothracians, Eleusinians, and Hyperboreans among the most ancient and wise peoples, and yet does not consider the Judeans worthy of a place in this category, either for their wisdom or their antiquity. He does this even though there are many writings in circulation among Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Greeks which testify to their existence as an ancient people, but I think it is unnecessary to quote them. For any one who chooses may read what Flavius Josephos has recorded in his two books on the antiquity of the Judeans, where he brings together a large collection of writers who bear witness to the antiquity of the Judean people. There is also the Address to the Greeks by Tatian the younger, in which with very great wisdom he enumerates those authors who have dealt with the antiquity of the Judean people and of Moses. So it seems that Celsus makes such statements not because of a love for truth, but from a spirit of hatred, with the object of casting aspersions on the origin of Christianity, which is dependent on Judeans. Moreover, he claims that the Galactophagians [Milk-eaters] of Homer [Iliad 13.3], the Druids among the Gauls, and the Getians [sometimes a sub-group of Thracians] are most wise and ancient tribes due to a resemblance between their traditions and those of the Judeans, although I know not whether any of their writings survive. Yet, as much as he can, he rejects Hebrews alone from receiving the honour of both antiquity and wisdom. Again, when making a list of ancient and wise men who made contributions for their contemporaries and for those afterwards through their writings, he excluded Moses from the list. For Linus, whom Celsus gives the first place in his list, there does not exist written laws or accounts which caused a change for the better among any peoples. Yet a whole people dispersed throughout the entire world follow the laws of Moses. Consider then whether he has expelled Moses from his list of wise men due to Celsus’ complete wickedness. For he asserts that Linus, Mousaios, Orpheus, Pherekydes, the Persian Zoroaster, and Pythagoras understood these doctrines and wrote their opinions down in books, which have therefore been preserved down to the present time.

17  Celsus has also intentionally omitted mention of the myth, embellished chiefly by Orpheus, in which the gods are described as affected by human weaknesses and emotions. In what follows, Celsus attacks the Mosaic account, criticizing those who give it a figurative or allegorical meaning. On this, one might say to this “great man,” who inscribed upon his own work the title of a True Doctrine: “Why, my good sir, are you so proud that your wise poets and philosophers described your gods engaging in these sorts of adventures, sexual perversities, and wars against their own fathers, cutting off their private parts and daring to commit and to suffer such crimes. While Moses – who gives no such accounts respecting God, who does not even give such accounts regarding the holy angels, and who relates deeds of far less atrocity regarding humans (for in his writings no one ever dared to commit such crimes as Kronos did against Ouranus, or Zeus did against his father, or to behave like “the father of men and gods” [Homer, Iliad 1.544] who had intercourse with his own daughter) – should be characterized as having deceived those who were under his laws and to have led them into error? Here Celsus seems to me to act somewhat like Thrasymachos in Plato, when he would not allow Socrates to answer regarding justice, as he wished, but said, “Take care not to say that utility is justice, or duty, or anything of that kind” [Plato, Republic 336C-D]. For in a similar way Celsus attacks, he imagines, the Mosaic writings and finds fault with those who understand them allegorically, while at the same time giving them some credit for being more impartial than those who do not engage in allegorical interpretatoin. And so, as it were, he prevents by his criticisms those who are able to show the true state of the case from offering such a defense as they would want to offer.

18  Challenging a comparison of book with book, I would say: Come now, good sir, take down the poems of Linus, Mousaios, and Orpheus, and the writings of Pherekydes, and carefully compare these with the laws of Moses. writings with writings and ethical discourses with laws and commandments. Observe which of the two are more effective in changing the character of the hearer on the very spot and which of the two harden him in his wickedness. Notice that your series of writers display little concern for those readers who are to consult them without a deeper understanding. Instead, they have composed their “philosophy” (as you label it) for those who are able to comprehend its metaphorical and allegorical meaning.

But in his five books, Moses behaved like a distinguished orator who meditates on some figure of rhetoric and carefully introduces twofold meanings in every part of language. For the multitude of Judeans following this legislation, he provided them no opportunities to be harmed in their moral behaviour, and yet he did not provide a writing devoid of deeper meaning for the few that possessed greater wisdom and were capable of investigating his meaning. But the writings of your wise poets do not seem to be extant, even though they would have been carefully preserved if the readers had perceived any benefit to be derived from them. Yet the works of Moses have moved many, even foreigners, to the education of the Judeans, to the belief that, as these writings testify, the first who enacted these laws and delivered them to Moses was the God who was the creator of the world. For it was fitting that the creator of the universe, after establishing laws for the whole world, would confer upon his own words a power which might overcome all people everywhere. I maintain this without yet raising an investigation regarding Jesus, but still demonstrating that Moses, who is far inferior to the Lord, is far superior to your wise poets and philosophers, as my argument will show.

19  After these statements, Celsus indicates his agreement with those who hold that the world is uncreated, while hiding his true aim, which is a secret desire to attack the Mosaic account of creation, an account which teaches that the world is not yet ten thousand years old but much younger. While maintaining that there have been many conflagrations and many deluges over eternity, and that the flood which lately took place in the time of Deukalion is comparatively modern, Celsus clearly demonstrates to those who are able to understand him that, in his opinion, the world was uncreated. But let this person who attacks the faith of Christians tell us by what arguments he was compelled to accept the statement that there have been many conflagrations and many cataclysms, and that the flood which occurred in the time of Deukalion and the conflagration in the time of Phaethon were more recent than any others. If he presents the dialogues of Plato as evidence on these subjects, we will say to him that it is allowable for us also to believe that there resided in the pure and pious soul of Moses – who ascended above all created things and united himself to the Creator of the universe, who made known divine things with far greater clearness than Plato or than other wise men among Greeks and Romans – a spirit which was divine. If Celsus demands from us our reasons for such a belief, let him first give grounds for his own unsupported assertions, and then we will show that this view of ours is the correct one.

20  Unintentionally, though, Celsus is entangled into testifying that the world is comparatively modern (and not yet ten thousand years old) when he says that the Greeks thought those things were ancient because, owing to the deluges and conflagrations, they have not seen or received any accounts of older events. But let us suppose that Celsus has as his authority for the story of conflagrations and inundations those persons who, in his opinion, are the most wise: the Egyptians, traces of whose wisdom are to be found in the worship of irrational animals and in arguments which prove that such a worship of god is in conformity with reason and of a secret and mysterious character. The Egyptians, then, when they proudly give their own discourse about animals as gods, are to be considered wise. But if any Judean, who has indicated his adherence to the law and the lawgiver, refers everything to the creator of the universe and the only God, he is in the opinion of Celsus and those like him considered inferior to the one who degrades the divinity not only to the level of rational and mortal beings, but even to the level of irrational animals. This view goes far beyond the mythical doctrine of transmigration, according to which the soul falls down from the summit of heaven and enters into the body of irrational animals, both tame and savage. If the Egyptians related fables of this kind, they are believed to convey a philosophical meaning by their enigmas and mysteries. But if Moses composes and leaves behind him writings and laws for an entire people, they are to be considered empty fables which cannot be intrepreted allegorically.

21  The following is the view of Celsus and the Epicureans: Moses having, he says, learned the doctrine which is to be found existing among wise peoples and eloquent men, obtained the spiritual (daimonion) name. My reply is as follows: Suppose that it is true that Moses did hear a somewhat ancient doctrine and transmitted that to the Hebrews. If the doctrine he heard was false and neither pious nor holy and if accepted it and passed it down to those under his authority, he is liable to criticism. But if, as you assert, he accepted wise and true doctrines and educated his people by means of them, what has he done deserving of condemnation? I wish that Epicurus and Aristotle, whose sentiments regarding providence are not as impious as Epicurus, and the Stoics, who assert that God is a material body, had heard such a doctrine. Then the world would not have been filled with opinions which either disallow or weaken providence, or introduce a corrupt corporeal principle. According to the latter Stoic view, even god is a material body, with respect to whom they are not afraid to say that he is capable of change and may be altered and transformed in all his parts and, generally, that he is capable of corruption, if there be any one to corrupt him, but that he has the good fortune to escape corruption because there is none to corrupt. But the teaching (logos) of the Judeans and Christians, on the other hand, which preserves the immutable and unchangeable nature of god is stigmatized, since it is not in agreement with those who hold impious opinions about god. For it says in a prayer to God: “You are the same.” And it is believed that God said, “I do not change.”

22  After this, Celsus does not condemn circumcision as practised by the Judeans, but does assert that this custom was derived from the Egyptians. Celsus therefore believes the Egyptians rather than Moses, who says that Abraham was the first among men to be circumcised. It is not Moses only who mentions the name of Abraham, assigning to him great intimacy with God. Many of those who chant incantations to spirits (daimones) use the expression “god of Abraham,” pointing out by the very name the friendship between that just man and God. While making use of the phrase “god of Abraham,” nonetheless do not know who Abraham is. The same point applies to Isaac, Jacob, and Israel. These names, although Hebrew, are frequently introduced by those Egyptians who profess to produce some wonderful result by means of their knowledge. The rite of circumcision, however, which began with Abraham and was discontinued by Jesus (who desired that his disciples should not practise it) is not what I aim to explain here. For it is not the right time to speak about such things, but instead to focus on refuting the accusations brought against the account of the Judeans by Celsus, who thinks that he will more readily be able to establish the falsity of Christianity if he can show its origins in Judean accounts, which are also claimed to be untrue.

23  After this, Celsus next asserts that those goatherds and shepherds who followed Moses as their leader were led away by clumsy tricks and so supposed that there was one God. Let him show how, after this irrational departure of the goatherds and shepherds from the worship of many gods (as he thinks), he himself is able to establish the multiplicity of deities that are found among the Greeks, or among those other peoples that are labelled “barbarian.” Let him prove, therefore, the existence of Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses by Zeus or of Themis, the parent of the Hours. Or let him prove that the always naked Graces can have a real, substantial existence. But he will not be able to show, from any actions of theirs, that these fictitious representations of the Greeks, which have the appearance of being invested with bodies, are actually gods. Why should the fables of the Greeks regarding the gods be true any more than those of the Egyptians, for instance, who in their language know nothing of a Mnemosyne, mother of the nine Muses; nor of a Themis, parent of the Hours; nor of a Euphrosyne, one of the Graces; nor of any other of these names? How much more clear and how much more superior to all these fantasies is it to be convinced by the visible order of the world that we should worship the maker of the world as the one author of one effect. An author being wholly in harmony with itself cannot on that account have been the work of many makers. We should not believe that the whole heaven is held together by the movements of many souls, for one is enough, which bears the whole of the non-wandering sphere from east to west, and embraces within it all things which the world requires and which are not self-existing. For all are parts of the world, but God is not part of the whole. God cannot be imperfect, as a part is imperfect. Perhaps a deeper investigation will show that as God is not a part, so neither is he properly the whole, since the whole is composed of parts. Reason will not allow us to believe that the God who is over all is composed of parts, each one of which cannot do what all the other parts can.

24  After this he continues: These goatherds and shepherds concluded that there was but one God, named either the Highest (Hypsistos), or Adonai, or the Heavenly, or Sabaoth, or called by some other of those names which they delight to give this world, and they knew nothing beyond that. And in a subsequent part of his work he says, that it makes no difference whether the God who is over all things is called by the name of Zeus, which is current among the Greeks, or by such and such a name which is in use among the Indians or Egyptians. My answer is that this involves a deep and mysterious subject: namely, regarding the nature of names, a question whether names were bestowed by arrangement, as Aristotle thinks, or by nature, as the Stoics hold. The first words being imitations of things that agreed with the names that were formed and being in conformity with which they introduce certain principles of etymology. Or whether, as Epicurus teaches (differing in this from the Stoics), names were given by nature, with the first men having uttered certain words varying with the circumstances in which they found themselves. If, then, we will be able to establish with regard to the above point the nature of powerful names, some of which are used by the wise among the Egyptians, or used by the Magians among the Persians and by the Indian philosophers called Brahmans, or used by the Samanaians, and others in different countries. If we could establish that what is called “Magian skill (mageia)” is not an altogether uncertain thing (as the followers of Epicurus and Aristotle suppose), but that Magian skill is a consistent system (as those skilled in it prove) having words which are known to exceedingly few, then we say that the names Sabaoth, Adonai, and other treated with so much reverence among the Hebrews are not applicable to any ordinary created things. Rather, these names belong to a secret discourse about the god (theologia) which refers to the creator of all things. These names, accordingly, when pronounced with that attendant train of circumstances which is appropriate to their nature, are possessed of great power. Other names, again, current in the Egyptian language are efficacious against certain spirits (daimones) who can only do certain things. Still other names in the Persian language have corresponding power over other spirits, and so on for every specific people and for different purposes. So it will be discovered that each of the various spirits (daimones) upon the earth who are assigned different localities bears a name appropriate to the several dialects of place and people. Therefore, the one who is nobler with more than a little comprehension of these things will be careful to apply the correct names to things so that he does not resemble those who mistakenly apply the name of God to lifeless matter or who drag down the title of the Good from the First Cause or from virtue and excellence and who apply it to blind Ploutos and to a healthy and well-proportioned mixture of flesh and blood and bones, or to what is considered to be noble birth. . . [numerous chapters omitted].


[Celsus and Origen on Magians and Chaldeans]

58  After this, instead of speaking about the Magians mentioned in the gospel [of Matthew], Celsus’ hypothetical Judean talks about Chaldeans, saying that, according to the account about Jesus, they were moved to come to him at his birth and to worship him while still an infant as a God and they made this known to Herod the tetrarch. Furthermore, Herod sent and killed all the infants that had been born about the same time, thinking that in this way he would ensure his death among the others. And that Herod was led to do this through fear that, if Jesus lived to a sufficient age, he would obtain the throne. In this case take note of the mistake of someone who cannot even distinguish between Magians and Chaldeans, nor understand that what they profess is different, and so he has falsified the gospel writing. Moreover, I do not know why he has passed over the cause which led the Magians to come in silence and why he has not stated in line with what is written that it was a “star” seen by them “in the east.” Let us see now what answer we have to make to these statements. The star that was seen in the east we consider to have been a new star, unlike any of the other well-known planetary bodies either those in the higher spheres above or those among the lower spheres. But this new star was like those celestial bodies which appear at times, such as comets or meteors which resemble beams of wood or beards or wine jars, or any of those other names by which the Greeks are accustomed to describe their varying appearances. And we establish our position in the following manner.

59  It has been observed that, on the occurrence of great events and changes in terrestrial things, such stars tend to appear, indicating either the removal of dynasties or the breaking out of wars, or the occurence of circumstances that may cause commotions upon the earth. But we have read in the Treatise on Comets by Chairemon the Stoic, that on some occasions when good things were to happen, comets made their appearance, and he gives an account of such instances. If, then, at the beginning of new dynasties or on the occasion of other important events there arises a so-called comet or any similar celestial body, why should it be considered unusual that a star should arise at the birth of him who was to introduce a new doctrine to humanity, and to make known his teaching not only to Judeans but also to Greeks and to many of the barbarous peoples as well? Now I would say that with respect to comets there is no prophecy in circulation to the effect that such and such a comet was to arise in connection with a particular kingdom or a particular time. But with respect to the appearance of a star at the birth of Jesus there is a prophecy of Balaam recorded by Moses to this effect: “There shall arise a star out of Jacob, and a man shall rise up out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). Now, if it is considered necessary to examine the narrative about the Magians and the appearance of the star at the birth of Jesus, the following is what we have to say, partly in answer to the Greeks, and partly to the Judeans.

60  To the Greeks, then, I have to say this: Magians are familiar with spirits (daimones) and invoke them for their own purposes, and they get results as long as nothing more divine and powerful than such spirits or invocations appear or is recited. But if some greater divine manifestation takes place, then the powers of the spirits are overthrown, being unable to resist the divine light. At the birth of Jesus “a multitude of the heavenly host,” as Luke records and I believe, “praised God, saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will towards men.” It is therefore probable that the spirits on that account became weak and lost their strength. The falsity of their echantments was manifested, and their power was broken. This overthrow was brought about not only by the angels having visited the terrestrial regions on account of the birth of Jesus, but also by the power of Jesus himself and his innate divinity.

Accordingly, the Magians, who wanted to produce the customary results which they used to perform by means of certain incantations (epōdai) and charms (mangeneia), looked for the cause of their failure, conjecturing that the cause was a great one. Observing a divine sign in the sky, they wanted to learn its significance. I am therefore of the following opinion: since the Magians possessed the prophecies of Balaam which Moses also records and as Balaam was renowned for such predictions, the Magians found among these predictions the prophecy about the star and the words, “I shall show him to him, but not now; I deem him happy, although he will not be near” (Numbers 24:17). So the Magians conjectured that the man whose appearance had been foretold along with that of the star had actually come into the world. Having predetermined that he was superior in power to all spirits (daimones), and to all common appearances and powers, they wanted to worship him. So they came to Judea persuaded that some king had been born, but did not understand what kingdom he would reign over. They brought gifts to him which they offered to him that was, so to speak, both God and mortal man, namely gold as to a king; myrrh as to one who was mortal, and incense as to a God. And they brought these offerings after they had learned the place of his birth. But since he was a god – the saviour of the human race raised far above all those angels which minister to men – an angel rewarded the piety of the Magians for their worship of him, by making known to them that they were not to go back to Herod, but to return to their own homes by another way. . . [omitted remainder of book 1, all of book 2 and part of book 3].


Book 3

[Origen refutes Celsus’ ethnographic claim that Judeans are in fact rebellious Egyptians]

5  After these points, Celsus imagines that the Judeans are Egyptians by descent who had left Egypt after revolting against the Egyptian community (koinon) and despising the customs of the Egyptians concerning worship. Then Celsus says that they [i.e. Judeans] suffered from the adherents of Jesus who believed he was the Christ the same treatment which they [i.e. Judeans] had inflicted upon the Egyptians. In both cases a revolt against the community led to innovations. Notice what Celsus has done here. The ancient Egyptians inflicted many cruelties upon the Hebrew descent group (genos), who had settled in Egypt due to a famine which had broken out in Judea. The Egyptians suffered as a result of their unjust treatment towards strangers and those who needed help. The punishment decreed by Providence was to fall on the whole people for having combined against an entire descent group who had been their guests and who had done them no harm. After being struck by plagues from God, they reluctantly and grudgingly allowed those they had wrongly enslaved go wherever they liked. So, because they were a selfish people who honoured those who were in any degree related to them far more than they honoured righteous foreigners, there is not an accusation which they have omitted to bring against Moses and the Hebrews. Although Egyptians do not completely deny the miracles and wonders done by Moses, they nonetheless claim that they were done by knowledge about howling chants (goēteia) and not by the power of God. But Moses was not like a howler of chants (goēs) but a pious man. Being devoted to the God of all things and sharing in the divine spirit, Moses both enacted laws for the Hebrews as God prompted him and recorded events as they happened with perfect accuracy.

6  Celsus was not impartial in investigating the facts, which are interpreted by the Egyptians in one way and in another way by the Hebrews, but has favoured the former as though effected by Egyptian spells. Celsus accepted as true the statements of those who had oppressed the foreigners, and declared that the Hebrews, who had been unjustly treated, had departed from Egypt after revolting against the Egyptians. In doing so, he did not notice how impossible it was for such a multitude of rebellious Egyptians to become a people (dating its origin from the said revolt) and change their language at the time of the rebellion, so that those who up to that time made use of the Egyptian language would completely and all at once adopt the language of the Hebrews. For the purpose of argument, let us assume that, on abandoning Egypt, they did develop a hatred for their mother tongue, but how did it happen that, after doing this, they did not rather adopt the Syrian or Phoenician language, instead of preferring the Hebrew, which is different from both? But reason seems to me to demonstrate that it is false to say that those who were Egyptians by descent group revolted against Egyptians, left the country, proceeded to Palestine, and occupied the land now called Judea. For Hebrew was the language of their fathers before their arrival in Egypt, and the Hebrew letters, employed by Moses in writing those five books which are considered sacred by Judeans, were different from those of the Egyptians.

7  Similarly, it is false to say that the Hebrews, being Egyptians, originated from a revolt and to say that, in the days of Jesus, other Judeans rebelled against the Judean community and became Jesus’ followers. Neither Celsus nor anyone who thinks like him are able to point to any action on the part of Christians which shows signs of revolt. Yet, if a revolt explains the origins of the Christians, so that it derived its existence in this way from that of the Judeans, who were permitted to take up arms in defense of the members of their families and to slay their enemies, the Christian lawgiver would not have altogether forbidden putting people to death. Yet he nowhere teaches that it is right for his disciples to commit violence against any one, no matter how wicked. For he did not think it was in keeping with such laws as his, which were derived from a divine source, to allow the killing of any individual whatsoever. Nor would the Christians, had they owed their origin to a revolt, have adopted laws that are so exceedingly mild in character that would not allow them to resist their persecutors even when it was their fate to be slain like sheep. Certainly, if we look a little deeper into things, we may say about the exodus from Egypt that it is a miracle if a whole people at once adopted the language called Hebrew, as if it had been a gift from heaven, when one of their own prophets said, “As they went forth from Egypt, they heard a language which they did not understand.”

8  In the following way, we may conclude that those who came out of Egypt with Moses were not Egyptians. For if they had been Egyptians, their names would also be Egyptian, because in every language the designations (of persons and things) are kindred to the language. . . [remainder of the work omitted].


Source of translation: F. Crombie, The Writings of Origen, Ante-Nicene Christian Library (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1869-1872), public domain, thoroughly adapted by Harland.


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